On Sunday, the British movie director Tony Scott jumped to his death from the Vincent Thomas Bridge across Los Angeles harbor. He was sixty-eight years old.
Scott was, by all accounts, a human dynamo of a man, often juggling multiple projects, radiating energy and enthusiasm. His movie career really took off (pun intended) with the highly successful Top Gun of 1986. He’s been making money and movies ever since.
And yet, on Sunday, he took his own life.
Jumping off a suspension bridge 185 feet into the water is a dramatic way to go. It is not a cry for help. It offers no second chances, no last-minute reprieve. It is the act of a man who has come to a decision from which there is no turning back.
This is not a eulogy to Mr Scott, nor is it supposed to be. I was not intending to incite a discussion on the subject of his passing. Indeed, I did not know him beyond having seen a fair amount of his work and I claim no association beyond that. To express anything other than the natural sympathy of one human being for the plight of another would be hypocritical and insincere on my part.
I heard the news in passing. It gave me momentary pause and a twinge of incomprehension. Why would a man who apparently had it all ― loving wife, children, career, acclaim ― decide to cut short his life? Many people endure daily lives of enormous suffering with great fortitude. What could have been so dreadfully wrong that this seemed like the only logical solution?
By Monday, stories were emerging that Scott had inoperable brain cancer. It seemed to offer a rational answer.
Today, however, I wake to news reports from the LA County Coroners that no trace of the disease was found during the autopsy. His wife claimed he had no health problems that she was aware of, so was he sick or not?
Some would say he must have been ill in some way, mentally or physically, to be driven to such an extreme act. But what actually made him jump? And what passed through his mind as he climbed that safety fence?
Pictures taken only a couple of days before Scott’s death show a man who seems, to all intents and purposes, to be full of the joys of life and living.
We may never know the full story behind this, and that in itself is a kind of tragedy.
Suicide is a deeply selfish act, but at least one could say that in making his such a public event there would be no doubts over it. He was clearly shown on CCTV footage as being alone and unaided. There was little delay in the discovery of his body, and his close family were not the ones to do so. That onlookers reached for their cameras rather than going to his aid is a sad comment on society today. That these people are now trying to flog their macabre video clips to the news agencies is shameful but comes as no surprise.
Perhaps, on reflection, it is the rest of us who are sick.
But the motivations of people under duress, whether physical or psychological, are fascinating in a somewhat horrifying way. When faced with desperate situations—even if they are not immediately apparent to outsiders—what governs the choices people make?
When I write I am always trying to provoke my characters into doing something extraordinary, good or bad. But I am aware that at the end of the book you close the cover and they lie down again to await the next reading. Their journey is a circular one, but like the arc of the sun we only see part of it before it drops beyond the far horizon out of view. What happened to those people before the opening page, and—of those who make it to the final chapter—what happens to them afterwards?
This week’s Word of the Week is procerity, which simply means tallness.
And here’s a beautiful piece of classical guitar from Vasco Martin, which I heard on radio yesterday. I include it for no other reason than it moved me.
What does govern the choices people make? It's a great question that doesn't always have an answer people will like. Who are we to judge that Mr. Scott's life was anywhere near good? And who are we to say that he should have sought help so he could continue on with it? Whenever I hear someone talk of suicide, I think back to my first reading of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Why do we force people to live when they obviously do not want to? For me, saying suicide is selfish is is like telling someone else what they should have done with their life, which is selfish in itself. Nice post, Zoe!
Hi Carrie Lynn
You make a very good point. Perhaps I should have said that it's not suicide in itself that's selfish, but the method some people choose to go about it. I knew somebody years ago whose father had committed suicide in his daughter's bedroom. He'd gone round to her house, let himself in, gone upstairs with a shotgun and blown his brains out all over her bed.
That one was definitely selfish in my view 🙂
I too am fascinated with what it is that makes people do things that seem to go totally against their character. What motivates them to do the unthinkable, and what is it that goes through their mind in that moment when they truly feel they have no other choice? Exploring these kinds of issues is part of what makes reading, and writing, mysteries so very much fun.
And, too, I think it's worth recognizing that the desperate actions of people have ripples that move far beyond the moment of crisis. Far too many books I've read show the heroine being gravely injured, or having to take the villain's life, or whatever, only to have her whole and undamaged again a page or a chapter or a book later. Too few, in my view, show the lingering effects of illness and injury, or the psychological traumas that long outlast the actual crisis. And don't even get me started on the TV shows whose main characters get shot one week and are back at work with no ill effects on the very next episode. Wounds, physical and otherwise, take a lot longer to heal in real life than they do in most fiction.
The sad truth about Mr. Scott's suicide, though, and about most suicides that I've encountered, is that answers are rarely easily available or clear, and even more rarely satisfying even when we have them. We talk often in our culture about "closure", but my experience has been that all the "closure" in the world won't take the ache out of the day AFTER you get the answers, when you still wake up without your loved one.
Yes, me, too: fascinated. The older I get the more I understand that I can't know people by what they choose to show the world. There's so much hidden beneath our surfaces. So, as an example, people I might shun as trashy, ignorant sorts might be hiding profound wisdom and goodness, and other folks who appear bright, shiny, and successful, might be hiding profound despair and self-hatred. We just don't know.
This goes with sociopathic behavior too–just can't tell because most sociopaths act "normal."
Likewise, how well do we know our loved ones? Sometimes we don't. I found out just a few years back that one of my best friends battles with suicidal thoughts all the time.
And some of the quietest, humblest people I've known have also been the most grounded, self-confident and comfortable in their bodies. It's just interesting.
We're so amazingly complex…This is a huge reason why I write fiction.
Interesting post, Zoe, with the perfect musical accompaniment. What a beautiful piece.
I agree with you that suicide is profoundly selfish. Yet I also agree with Carrie Lynn in a way. Surely the one thing we truly own in life is the right to do with our lives and our bodies what we like.
Then I think about my two kids. The minute I gave birth to them they took part of me. Just as a part of them lives in me. And my husband holds my heart. So I suppose I no longer belong only to myself, in which case neither does the choice to live or die.
I disagee completely that suicide is selfish. Only someone who hasn't truly hurt — and I meant someone who hasn't been in the worst pits of despair — would say that. I read in Karin Slaughter's UNDONE what I think may be one of the most beautiful passages. As Sara contemplated suicide, her mother said, "either you do it, or you don't, but don't force us to watch you waste away."
I believe that if you REALLY love someone, you'd rather have them die in peace than live in pain. My aunt had borderline personality dirsoder and killed herself at 41. I think everyone in my family felt glad that she wasn't in such horrible emotional pain anymore.
We are not born to be in pain, that's not our natural state, when it becomes that, can you really blame someone?
Wow, nice response, Barbie. I agree that people who have never truly hurt, felt despair (or chronic, debilitating pain for that matter) might not get it.
Gets me thinking about people who haven't been truly depressed, who tell me to just buck up, or some silly thing like that. It's so obvious that they have no clue. In my darkest moments, I've only felt a glimmer of suicidal despair. I try to imagine what it would be like to feel that ALL THE TIME–there's just no freaking way.
And this thought gets me thinking that to feel that way and to continue living requires a huge, exhausting amount of inner strength. I can imagine that for some people the strength it takes to continue on might just leave them one day…They might just get too tired. I can totally imagine that.
Thought provoking comments. My reaction earlier was the same as some on here. Why selfish? Many of the responses pointed to the "why" of the matter, which is too often never revealed in news stories about suicide, murder — the very things that we write about as fiction. We usually provide a "why." While I agree that some could make suicide a horrible, vengeful act on those they left behind, I can imagine instances in which it is an appropriate and respectable way out.
I’ve tried very hard in my writing to show consequences of actions and injuries. Yes, Charlie does get shot―twice (in SECOND SHOT, unsurprisingly enough!) but she suffers for it for probably more than half that book, and into the next. As you say, TV shows tend to have their characters bouncing back at some point between the last ad break and the end credits.
The worst example of this was the Felix Leiter character in Licence To Kill ― one of the Timothy Dalton/James Bond movies. Poor old Leiter’s new bride is murdered on her wedding night and he is dropped into a shark pit, having his arm and leg bitten off, but by the end of the movie he’s sitting up having a laugh and a joke with Bond. I know you have to suspend your disbelief more for a Bond movie than for others, but that was a proper WTF moment for me.
I was moved by your final para, and you’re quite right, of course. Knowing WHY doesn’t fill the empty space in the world where that person used to be.
Absolutely. What we see of people is, indeed, little more than the thin end of the iceberg, as a friend of mine used to say. I believe creative people suffer from the Black Dog more than most. They are far more likely to develop some form of mental illness or depression than those engaged in the sciences.
Modern life is all about status symbols and it raises our awareness of failure to levels that are sometimes too acute.
Writing fiction, for me, is often a way to make sense of it all.
I heard John Williams playing that guitar piece on the radio and had to look it up. Lovely, isn’t it?
I agree that we should have the right to say what we do with our own bodies, but how we choose to go about that is another matter ― particularly when there are families involved.
I’m sorry that you felt provoked enough by this post to react as you did. I find it interesting that you have made certain assumptions about me in your comment, but please bear in mind that those assumptions may not be entirely accurate. Perhaps my words come partly from being able to look at this from both sides of the glass?
Suicide as release from pain is one thing, but how you choose to go about that release is another.
Depression is a chemical imbalance that often cannot be ‘cured’ by determination or readjustment of attitude, just as you would not tell a diabetic to buck up and produce some insulin.
I agree that living takes work, just as being happy takes work. And sometimes you do simply run out of the energy to keep all those plates spinning.
Selfish perhaps applies more to the method than the intent.
Beautiful post, Zoe. I too was shocked by the news of Tony Scott's suicide. I'm a fan of his work and I find it difficult to imagine what could have brought him to such a place. It made some sense when I heard the rumors about his "inoperable brain cancer," and then I read the reports that his family denied knowledge of any such ailment. I believe the Coroner's report requires more time, however – I read that it would be four or six weeks to confirm. (I also know the Coroner personally, which adds an entirely different macabre take on the thing).
Suicide….hmmm. I agree with what has been said by others here, that a person should have the right to take his own life. I have a friend who is suffering from MS, really withering away, and he wants to die. If I could, I would help him. However, my father killed himself twenty-eight years ago and it's something that makes me angry to this day. Because he left a lot of shit behind. And he could have come through, to the other side of things, if he'd just opened up and asked for some help. It really was a permanent solution to a host of temporary problems. And it was selfish, in that he denied his children the relationship we could have re-built in the future, and he denied the grandchildren he would eventually have the opportunity to know their grandfather. I do think he only thought about himself when he took his life. Then again, whatever brought him to the mental state to take such an action was something that cannot be fully understood. He obviously felt there was no way out, and I can't judge him without having walked in his shoes. Still – it pisses me off, and I don't think I'll ever forgive him for it.
Two Novembers ago, Alison Janssen wrote a brilliant post on backstory and motivations that seems to me to be as true for Real People(TM) as it is for our imaginary ones: http://heydeadguy.typepad.com/heydeadguy/2010/11/no-character-is-an-island.html
At a panel I attended last year, someone said that while we can't know for sure why Real People do what they do — because we don't understand their explanations, if any are offered, or they themselves may not know or want to, etc. — writers had better know why their characters do what they do. Because one of the reasons writers write is to make sense out of what we see, subjectively, as senseless.
We live just a few miles from the Vincent Thomas Bridge. It is a cold and somewhat frightening structure. It always takes me a bit more effort to cross it than other area bridges.
I wish we could understand events like this – see the stress fractures, read the maps they make, interrupt the predicted journey.
We never will, I think. People are mysteries. It's one of the reasons we work this particular orchard, plant these peculiar fruits. Today I am in fact mystified by one of our granddaughters. Your observations, Zoe, have much meaning to me in that context.
Such a wealth of pain in your words. And I suppose this does indeed highlight the selfish aspect of suicide, even though it IS the individual’s right. There almost always seem to be people left behind whose lives will be forever affected by it. And your description of ‘a permanent solution to a host of temporary problems’ is so accurate in so many cases. My heart goes out to you, guy.
You’re absolutely right. People’s behaviour can be totally inexplicable, but I have to explain every nuance of my character’s motives ― if not outright on the page, then certainly to my editor.
And I love the link you sent through. Drops of coloured liquid in the ocean of life. Fabulous.
Thank you , Tom
Places take on associations that are not immediately apparent to everyone. I still find yellow American school buses very sinister and I’m not entirely sure why …
I heard only this week that the son of an old friend ― I used to babysit for him and his two brothers when they were young ― has had a series of psychotic breaks and been Sectioned (either been committed or committed himself to a mental institution) numerous times. I remember him as a happy little boy and will never know what happened on his journey between then and now.
Sorry to be a day late. I'm not one of those to think that suicide is inherently a selfish act. I can't know how someone else experiences their pain — or their shame, or dread, or whatever else made them decide death was preferable to living. A friend recently died of cancer and near the end she was ready, just sick and tired of being sick and tired. Is that surrender to cancer qualitatively different than suicide? Surrender to illness vs. actively taking your own life, sure. But both express a limit to what the person could endure.
I don't know the circumstances that might have led Tony Scott to take his life, either. Or what a friend of mine took her life two years ago. What I take from both deaths is that simple realization — I don't know — and that there is always more to people than we can possibly imagine. It's humbling, and should inspire us to listen perhaps a bit more mindfully.
But I can only live my own life. Which also means I have the power to end it.Everyone does. It's sobering.
Your words are poetic, as always. I come away from this topic with far more questions than answers. We are all such fragile beings, aren't we?